Pakistan: The greatest threat

The militants who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team also have Britain and the US in their sights, write Omar Waraich and Raymond Whitaker

Three separate bombings, including one in which a dead body was used to lure policemen to the scene, killed 15 people in Pakistan yesterday, underlining the helplessness of the authorities as they search in vain for the militants who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team last week.

Six policemen were killed on Tuesday as a dozen gunmen ambushed the Sri Lankan team bus in broad daylight in the centre of Lahore, long regarded as Pakistan's least-troubled city. The cricketers escaped with relatively minor wounds, but the sight of them having to be evacuated by helicopter from the pitch where they were due to play a Test match against Pakistan, coupled with widespread reporting of the reaction of English and Australian match officials, and coaches caught up in the attack, brought home to millions what the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, described as the "mortal threat" that Pakistan faces from its "internal enemies". It was the first direct terrorist attack on a sports team since the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Yesterday seven policemen and a bystander died in the worst bombing of the day, underlining the extent to which large areas of Pakistan have slipped out of government control. The incident occurred in the Badaber area of Peshawar, where the authorities believed they had achieved a rare success against the militants, who were recently driven back by local people working with law enforcement agencies. But the militants promised revenge, and lured the police to their deaths. An anonymous phone call said a body had been left in a car; when the police approached, a bomb in the car was detonated by remote control.

Hours earlier, an improvised explosive device damaged a military convoy as it passed through the notorious arms-manufacturing town of Darra Adam Khel, on the edge of the tribal areas. Three passers-by were killed and four troops injured, while a suicide bombing in a mosque in Khyber killed four and wounded five.

The attacks emphasise that the civilian government of President Asif Zardari is no more effective than the military rule of his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, at stemming the brutal advance of militancy across the country. Indeed, Mr Zardari and his Pakistan People's Party seem more preoccupied with using the judiciary to exclude a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his brother, Shahbaz, from office than confronting the militant threat. Shahbaz was ousted as premier of Punjab province, whose capital is Lahore, just before the attack on the cricketers, bringing accusations that the political turmoil had hampered security arrangements.

Mr Miliband made his "mortal threat" comment during an appeal to Pakistan's civilian politicians to cease their infighting and unite against adversaries who regard both sides as obstacles to their dream of turning Pakistan into a regime similar to Afghanistan under the Taliban. This year both American and British officials have become increasingly open about their fear that Pakistan – which has nuclear weapons under the control of a military at least to some extent open to extremist influence – is a greater danger than Afghanistan.

Security agencies have warned that two-thirds of the terror plots Britain faces originate in Pakistan, or are supported from there. But the inability or unwillingness of Pakistan to curb the flow of militants into Afghanistan also poses a direct threat to British and American troops there. The task of the Nato forces may be further complicated by political turmoil in Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai, whose term expires next month, finally accepted yesterday that an election could not be held until August, when the "surge" of up to 30,000 extra US troops will have had time to stabilise the country. But he wants to stay in office until then, while his opponents insist that he step down in April.

Recently MPs were told in London that Pakistani generals still considered it in the country's strategic interest to have the Taliban – which was created by Pakistan's military intelligence service – in power in Kabul rather than President Karzai's government, which is closer to India. Shaun Gregory, head of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at Bradford University, told the Foreign Affairs Committee that Pakistan's role in the Afghan Taliban's comeback "lies somewhere between passive tolerance ... [and] open and active support". Britain, the US and Nato found themselves "reliant on an 'ally' which does not share their interests and whom they cannot trust".

Other experts told the committee that Pakistan showed little interest in tackling militant commanders such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, both old mujahedin leaders in Afghanistan who have thrown in their lot with al-Qa'ida and with the foreign Islamists who have made their base in Waziristan, the largest and most lawless of the tribal areas along the Pakistani border. Instead, the Pakistani military has been battling a new generation of younger militants who want to "Talibanise" Pakistan.

They include the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, 34, who is accused of sending the suicide bombers who killed President Zardari's wife, Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007, after which he inherited her political mantle. The Pakistani military formed an alliance with two of Mr Mehsud's rivals, Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who concentrated on fighting in Afghanistan, and mounted a joint campaign against the Pakistani Taliban leader and his al-Qa'ida aligned Uzbek cohorts. But now, as Washington has stepped up its CIA-operated drone strikes in tribal areas, Mr Nazir and Mr Bahadur appear to have cut ties with the Pakistan army and joined Mr Mehsud to form "Shura Ittehad Mujahedin", or Council of United Jihadists. The new Waziristan alliance has declared Afghanistan's former leader, Mullah Omar, its spiritual guide, and Islamabad, Kabul and Washington its enemies.

Pakistan's army sees the move as a setback to its efforts to divide and rule in the tribal areas, while the continuing spate of American missile attacks, including a report yesterday of a drone that crashed in the tribal areas, emphasises Washington's lack of confidence in the Pakistan government's ability to serve American interests.

The Obama administration has recently broadened its range of targets, striking for the first time last month training camps run by Hakimullah Mehsud, an associate of Baitullah Mehsud. Militants and suspected criminal elements working with Hakimullah were responsible for a flurry of attacks on Nato convoys destined for Afghanistan as they approached the Khyber Pass.

Islamabad is more concerned about militants such as Maulana Fazlullah of the Swat valley. The Taliban commander seized up to four-fifths of the valley in a brutal campaign, and, faced with losing the valley to the Taliban, the government sued for peace last month. It signed a deal with Mr Fazlullah's estranged father-in-law, Sufi Mohammed, as the army ceased its military operation. The government bowed to Sufi Mohammed's demands, imposing Islamic law in the area in return for a cessation of hostilities. Analysts worry the concession could create a sanctuary for militants, including al-Qa'ida, just a three-hour drive from Islamabad.

The spread of militancy across the Indus river to the more populous, settled areas of Pakistan is likely to widen the divergence of interests between Islamabad and the West still further. After six suicide attacks in 2006, suicide bombings in Pakistan have shot up to 10 times that number in each of the two following years. The commando-style attack in Lahore, echoing the assault on India's richest city, Mumbai, last November, brings a new tactic to parts of Pakistan which have never had to think about the wars raging in the mountains and plains further west.

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